On December 6 a Kyrgyz citizen was shot at the U.S.-led international anti-terrorism coalition’s Ganci airbase at Manas. Alexander Ivanov, a 43-year-old truck driver, appeared to be on a routine mission at Ganci when he was killed. He was allegedly shot on one of the approaches to the air base. Omurbek Suvanaliyev, the acting Kyrgyz interior minister, arrived shortly afterwards and initially avoided commenting on the cause of the fatality (Kabar News Agency, December 6). As Kyrgyz police officers arrived at the scene, events rapidly escalated into a diplomatic incident.
The press service of the Ganci base issued a statement on December 6 confirming that a Kyrgyz citizen had been shot earlier that day and that a U.S. Air Force serviceman had acted in response to a perceived and actual threat. The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry invited an explanation from Marie Yovanovitch, U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz media certainly gave an impression of hostility toward Yovanovitch, however. During the meeting the ambassador was presented with a letter expressing deep concerns about the tragedy, as well as requesting that the U.S. side immediately clarify the incident at Manas airport.
Simultaneously Nurlan Sulaymanov, the Kyrgyz minister of transport and communications, and Taalay Kydyrov, the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry’s state secretary, were sent to Manas to meet Colonel Joel Reese, the commander of the air base. The Kyrgyz officials demanded that an impartial and prompt investigation into the tragic incident be jointly carried out, according to the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry (Akipress, December 6).
Russian media coverage offered the following version of events: a U.S. serviceman shot dead a worker at Manas, while he was refueling an aircraft. The justification was that the U.S. guard believed Ivanov was preparing an act of terrorism. Russian sources suggested that the U.S. perspective was that he was either about to ram the gate of a checkpoint at the base or possibly to produce a gun.
Moreover, U.S. military incompetence was the main theme of Russian media coverage, which brought up an incident that occurred at the base just six weeks ago, involving a Tu-154 passenger aircraft and a U.S. refueling truck that collided on the runway. Although no official results have yet been published relating to the investigation into this particular incident, the Russian angle emphasized that an air disaster was only avoided due to the “professional skills” of the Kyrgyz pilots (Radio Mayak, December 6). However, opponents of the U.S. military presence in Kyrgyzstan, both inside and beyond the country, have seized the opportunity to exact pressure within governmental circles to close the base.
As news of the incident broke, local eyewitnesses alleged that Ivanov had been shot in the back several times as he returned to his truck. On December 7 Aynura Tentiyeva, head of the Manas airport’s department for external relations, questioned the idea that the U.S. soldier had shot the Kyrgyz national in the back (Akipress, December 7). Kyrgyz sympathy for the action was unusual. On December 7 criminal proceedings were duly launched over the killing. Eight servicemen from the U.S. air base were interrogated and evidence, in the form of two 9-mm cartridges, a bullet, a hand-made knife, a chair with a bullet hole, a driver’s documents and a military pass belonging to a U.S. serviceman, was gathered during the preliminary part of the Kyrgyz investigation (Kyrgyz Television 1, December 7).
As political pressure grew, not least in response to negative press coverage, Kubanychbek Isabekov, the Kyrgyz deputy speaker of parliament, argued that the base agreement between Kyrgyzstan and the United States should be reviewed. Interestingly, his comments resembled the attack launched in the Russian media: “This is not the first such incident. Earlier, there were incidents involving aircraft, which crashed and collided. A few years ago, a serviceman from the U.S. Ganci air base ran over two women in Kyrgyzstan, and he was not punished in terms of recovering neither material nor moral damages.” Isabekov openly questioned the U.S. version of the incident, “The American servicemen are well-trained. They know not only how to use arms but also how to defend themselves with their fists. Suddenly shooting a person, in which not only one shot but several shots were fired, is an obvious abuse of one’s powers.” Isabekov also raised the objection that U.S. personnel are covered by diplomatic immunity while serving in the country (Kabar, December 7).
President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, responding to the wave of outrage, ordered the Foreign Ministry to begin reconsidering a provision to Note No. 542, issued by the U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan in December 2001, on the status of U.S. soldiers. “The serviceman who was involved in the incident must not leave our country while the investigation is under way. The country’s investigation agencies must interrogate him and all the circumstances of the incident should be cleared up. I ask you that there should be no obstacles to the investigation process,” Bakiyev said (Akipress, December 7).
U.S. Ambassador Yovanovitch has promised Bakiyev full cooperation and a joint commission to investigate recent incidents and to prevent any future recurrence. Once again, however, the U.S. military foothold in Central Asia has been exposed as fragile and vulnerable. U.S. diplomats are again working to repair damaged relations. Meanwhile, Kyrgyz authorities may require a scapegoat to placate critics of the U.S. military presence in the country.